THE LAST OF US is a game with some baggage. Initially released in 2013 as a swan song for the aging PlayStation 3 and re-released the following year as The Last of Us Remastered for the PlayStation 4, the game exemplified the controversies at the heart of the gaming industry at the time, from “can video games be art?” to, “are cinematic games really games?” and even, “how can anything ever be better than Grand Theft Auto V?” And that’s all before ever getting to the exhausting debate around the game’s portrayal of violence, the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” and the absolute maelstrom of hatred toward the game’s controversial (and superior) sequel, 2020’s The Last of Us Part II. So, it isn’t surprising that developer Naughty Dog’s decision to remake The Last of Us was met with skepticism. Is it worth returning to this well?
Set 20 years after a global outbreak caused by the (terrifyingly real) cordyceps fungal parasite leaves the world in ruin, the story of The Last of Us Part I centers on the duo of Joel and Ellie. Players primarily take on the role of Joel, a grizzled smuggler struggling to survive who is tasked with delivering Ellie — a mouthy teen/adorable nightmare — to a militia group called the Fireflies. Immune to the plague, Ellie may be the key to the cure, and so they embark on a cross-country odyssey defined by tragedy and poignancy. Tonally, it’s halfway between Children of Men and Logan, with a dash of The Walking Dead. But to its credit, the story never feels rote, largely due to stellar writing and god-tier performances by the cast, led by Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) — whose voice work and motion-capture performances here set the standard for the next decade of cinematic storytelling in gaming. It’s also a 15-hour plus experience, which allows audiences to spend much more time fully immersed in every detail of the world, beyond what can be presented in any single film or season of television.
From a mechanical standpoint, the gameplay mostly revolves around exploring linear stretches of the world in the third-person. The exploration elements amount to scrubbing every nook and cranny of overgrown streets, dilapidated buildings and homes, and occasionally forests and sewers, picking up ammo and crafting resources that will (hopefully) keep you alive once the inevitably violent encounters hit. Combat is a mix of stealth, gunplay, and melee that’s all easy to execute, maintaining the illusion of cinematic storytelling for the most part. The remake lifts many of the updated mechanics from Part II to create a more modern control scheme. Shooting is more impactful and enemy AI seems a bit brighter –but overall the improvements are marginal. The game plays how you remember it, which makes sense given than nothing has been changed from an encounter standpoint. Why would the developers build new mechanics, or even add some of the bigger changes from the sequel, if the scenarios themselves were never built around utilizing them? But after getting accustomed to the small sandbox-style arenas in Part II, the gameplay here does feel quaint. These aren’t the complex and agonizing murder puzzles of the sequel.
Visually, however, the game fully matches the 2020 title and often surpasses it, given that it’s been rebuilt from the ground up for the PlayStation 5 hardware. The PS5 is home to multiple stunning titles (Horizon Forbidden West and fellow remake Demon’s Souls are standouts) but true to form, nobody does it like Naughty Dog. Gone are the waifu-like eyes and smooth skin of the character models from the original, replaced by cutting edge lighting and modeling effects. Like most PS5 titles, the game offers both a fidelity mode, running at 4K resolution / 30Hz / ~30fps, as well as performance mode, which can reach Dynamic 4K or 1440p at 60Hz if your display allows, targeting 60fps. If you’ve got an HDMI 2.1 enabled display, you can push for the HDR-enabled, VRR (variable refresh rate) mode to hit performance+, which is the best the game will look splitting the difference between frame rate and resolution. This is the best-looking game currently available on the PlayStation 5. At times nearly indistinguishable from a film, it’s the type of title for people looking to trick their significant other into liking a video game. They’ll begin peeking as they go in-and-out of the room, but before long will be knees-to-chin bawling on the couch until the story’s end.
Much ballyhoo will be made over the look of this game, but just as impressive are the audio design and DualSense controller integration. With a pair of PULSE 3D wireless headphones, the game world springs to life jarringly. The game’s early quarantine zone, packed with non-player characters, is aflutter with murmurs, dogs barking, food cooking and pots clattering. The Clickers – the most iconic creature / nightmare fuel from the bestiary – become exponentially more terrifying when their echolocation clicking feels like it’s brushing the hair of your neck. The score by Academy Award-winning composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, is understated and dreamlike, and is one of the few video game soundtracks that you can unironically own on vinyl and spin on the daily.
To date, few games have made extensive use of the DualSense controller as well as one would’ve hoped. The Last of Us Part I joins Housemarque’s Returnal as one of the few games to truly take advantage of the immersive potential of both the adaptive triggers and tactile feedback the gamepad offers. The original PS3 controller was saddled with gummy little shoulder buttons that were functional but a disappointment even at the time. Now, shooting feels frighteningly realistic. Firing on another human in this game makes you feel it. The trigger resists, the gun sways, it’s almost like the controller itself has suddenly become leaden before the snap and audible click of the hammer. Mechanical updates like this feel like Naughty Dog went back to their original creation and infused a tangible way of evoking unease using the all-powerful verb rather than weaving it into the narrative. Arguably, that’s what a good game should do.
The way the audio design and tactile feedback work together is masterful. There was a moment during my play-through where traveling through the ruins of Boston, I stopped to admire the beauty of a thunderstorm in the distance, losing myself in the ASMR-like rhythmic vibration of the droplets in both my hands and headphones before a thunder crack shook my entire body out of complacency. Credit must be given to the studio for not just creative flourish, but how it impacts accessibility options. The Last of Part II was touted as one of the first games that could be completed start-to-finish with audio-only, and this title seems to follow suit. There’s a massive array of customizability options to aid the visually and audibly impaired, from colorblind modes, audio cue intensity, and difficulty sliders on a micro level.
Lastly, it’s time to hook back to the elephant in the room. The Last of Us was a game originally released in the halcyon days of a pre-Gamergate world where the alt-right buzzword “woke” hadn’t yet landed in the cultural lexicon. Although exceptionally well told, the game’s story hedged its dubious morality on the familiar. Joel did some bad stuff, but perhaps it’s for the right reasons. The sequel had no such illusions. It is a savage deconstruction of the first game, painting Joel and Ellie’s bloody odyssey with harsh repercussions. The narrative more sprawling and obtuse, the characters and scenarios darker and more violent in the “uncomfortable” and “less fun” way, it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. More specifically, it rubbed a certain type of person the wrong way — the type that would not be happy that the game’s heteronormative white male lead was supplanted by a queer heroine (Ellie, canonically gay since the first game’s DLC in 2014), as well as a cast that included POC, trans, and gender non-conforming characters. The fierce backlash kicked off a notorious harassment campaign. But instead of turning tail the creators (rightfully) stood by their creation and now have ratcheted up the boldness with the remake which, by title alone, has deference to the essential nature of the sequel. To wit, this would be like Disney responding to the backlash to Star Wars Episode VIII by re-releasing Episode VII as “The Force Awakens: A Last Jedi Prequel,” rather than cowardly backtracking on everything in The Rise of Skywalker. It’s a tremendous move.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Last of Us Part I may vary depending on whether you’re willing to shell out $70.00 USD for what is essentially the same game as the remaster currently available for free with a PlayStation Plus membership. If you can come to terms that with, this is the best version of one of the best games released in the modern era. Pick it up if only to arm yourself for the inevitable Twitter meltdown when the HBO television adaptation launches next year.
The Last of Us Part I is now available exclusively for PlayStation 5.